A Fresh Take on Conventional Wisdom
Malcolm Gladwell brings yet another nonfiction bestseller to us in 2008, after the release of The Tipping Point and Blink. Once again, he uses social psychology to turn conventional wisdom upside down and brings the facts based on his research.
In Outliers, Gladwell breaks down what makes someone an “outlier” – namely, the best and the brightest, and the most successful. Conventional wisdom dictates that people become successful through hard work and talent. It is their innate qualities, combined with discipline, that make them who they are. However, Gladwell challenges this, discussing how their families, time, upbringing and culture have largely dictated their degree of success. Whereas it is normally believed that someone can be successful through their own efforts, the book argues that factors to success are often out of our control.
He also challenges our perception on natural advantages that some people have in life. For instance, it is commonly believed that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds will have greater advantages in become successful, while those from poorer backgrounds have a greater chance of following in their parents’ footsteps. Those who rise up from their upbringings are praised as succeeding against all odds. Gladwell argues that in some instances, certain “disadvantaged” backgrounds can actually help children to become successful.
The book begins with an “ice-breaker” of sorts, by introducing readers to “the Roseto mystery”. Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, has a very low rate of heart disease and long lifespan amongst its residents. Gladwell sets out to explore what factors contribute to this phenomenon, by examining health factors such as diet, genetics and lifestyle. However, all of the conventional health factors are investigated and dismissed as primary reasons, since the neighbouring areas outside Roseto are very similar in this regard, yet do not have the same rates of healthiness. The introduction concludes that the social structure, brought by the town’s founders from Italy, has contributed to the residents’ well-being. Their cultural legacy of community and social support for one another has led to their success.
Part One: Opportunity
The book is broken down into two main parts: opportunity and legacy. “Opportunity” is comprised of five chapters, while “Legacy” consists of four chapters and an epilogue. Opportunity discusses the advantages that people have to succeed, which are largely out of their control. Legacy is about the culture of a group and its effect on generations.
In Opportunity, the author covers a variety of phenomena, from what makes a successful professional hockey player to Bill Gates’ rise in technology, to the perception of Mozart as a musical prodigy.
For example, he paints a picture of Bill Gates’ background as one born of privileges and opportunities unavailable to the average person at the time. Born in the 1950s, Bill attended a private school that had computers available for students, giving him the opportunity to practice programming. He developed his skills early on and became much more adept that the average person on computers, which were not widely available at the time. Bill Gates’ mother was a member on the same board of an organization as an IBM executive, leading to Bill’s introduction to a giant in computer technology.
The opportunity that Bill had to work on the computer gave him more “practice hours” to succeed in his craft. A central concept on Outliers was that people who became world-renowned experts on a subject had 10,000 hours of practice, which applied to Bill Gates, Mozart, and other successes.
Part Two: Legacy
In Legacy, Gladwell discusses cultural legacies, and how they have led to either successes or failures. For instance, Korean airlines had had a history of plane crashes attributable to their power structures amongst pilots. They recognized this issue and retrained pilots to collaborate together rather than have one person dictate another. Since then, their airlines achieved high safety ratings.
He finally finishes off with his own cultural legacy, and how the choices of his ancestors have led to his life. Once again, he delves the concept of “outliers” by describing the reasoning behind his grandmother’s decisions, and his mother’s upbringing.
Review of the Book
Gladwell succeeds in choosing an interesting topic and building upon it with a variety of anecdotes, providing interesting bits of trivia, such as why hockey players tend to be born in the beginning of the year. The book is entertaining in most parts by telling stories of the world’s most successful, and giving a different spin on backgrounds and cultures of different groups of people. He takes seemingly mundane, unrelated facts and weaves them together to make an argument.
However, at times he does seem to bend psychological and historical studies in a way as to prove his point. For instance, he discusses how Asians are good at math because of the cultivation of rice paddies. Yet, this does not serve to explain the cultivation of mathematical theories developed in European and Middle-Eastern societies. Mathematics taught in Asia is largely based off of concepts originating in the west, rather than vice versa. Gladwell focuses on specific arguments, but does not bring into discussion other potential reasons for phenomena.
Another issue is the bias in selection of studies for the book’s topic. Many of the cases on the book are picked specifically to support the argument, while disregarding those that do not fit. His cases are simplified to fit into boxes to prove a point that may not stand in the real world.
I would have been curious to learn more about those who are relevant in society and are “diamonds in the rough”. For instance, Oprah Winfrey became the first “self-made” female billionaire. In a long list of billionaires who are white men, how did a black female who was abused as a child rise up to prominence?
Overall, Gladwell brings up a question about what makes success, and answers it in an intriguing way, shining the spotlight on interesting facts I had not known before. His methodology is not truly scientific due to the various biases of the book, but makes for an entertaining read for an everyday lay individual.
If you have some spare time, Outliers is a fun, interesting book that raises questions and provides explanations. Just don’t expect all the answers to be completely academic in nature.